The “Godfather of Absinthe” explains the spirit’s long journey from banned substance to trendy tipple.
Absinthe is a lot like gin — a neutral spirit infused with herbs and botanicals. In fact in the United States a spirit that qualifies as gin could even be labeled absinthe. “Absinthe is not legally defined in the US or in Europe,” says Lucid Absinthe distiller T.A. Breaux. “That means that anybody can sell anything and call it absinthe.”
T.A. Breaux became interested in absinthe when he was living in New Orleans and working as a research scientist. The Old Absinthe House, a bar on Bourbon Street that was opened in 1874 and still stands, peaked his interest; so much so that he started tracking down vintage bottles of the stuff, and even traveled to some of Europe’s original absinthe distilleries. A scientist at heart, Breaux subjected vintage absinthe to sophisticated scientific analysis, and proved that none of the bottle’s ingredients were capable of making you hallucinate. He collaborated with Viridian Spirits to recreate an original absinthe recipe and then presented it to the Alcohol and Tobacco Tax and Trade Bureau (the TTB), lobbying for the product’s legalization in the United States. Their lobbying was successful, Breaux earned the nickname “The Godfather of Absinthe,” and absinthe enthusiasts all over the United States rejoiced.
One of these enthusiasts was Gwydion Stone, who frequently imported absinthe from Europe to his home in Seattle before it was legal to make it in the United States. An online absinthe community led him to several other Seattle-based absinthe connoisseurs. They started getting together for cocktail parties, and ordered their European absinthe in bulk to save money on shipping. What began as a low-key group of fans evolved into The Wormwood Society, now a non-profit organization with an online tasting forum and more than 2,500 members.
The Wormwood Society is named after one of absinthe’s essential ingredients: Artemisia absinthium, or grand wormwood. The herbaceous, bright green plant originates in Eurasia and northern Africa. According to Stone (and Breaux) wormwood is one of the “holy trinity” of herbs that must be included in a spirit to qualify it as absinthe. The other two are fennel and green anise. This original trifecta appeared in traditional absinthes that were first distilled in Switzerland.
The first commercial absinthe distillery was established in France in 1805. Until its ban a century later, absinthe pervaded the country’s culture. It was inexpensive, high proof, and perfect for a huge host of vintage cocktails that emerged during the 19th century. Books and songs were written about it, and a great deal of absinthe-inspired artwork emerged.
Somewhere along the way, though, absinthe got a bad rap. Maybe it was its funky color that lent itself so easily to anything psychedelic. Or maybe it was the fact that Vincent van Gogh drank a lot of absinthe (just so you know, he drank a lot of everything else, too). No matter the catalyst for absinthe’s proposed poisonous nature and hallucinogenic properties, assumptions were made, rumors spread, and suddenly it was banned from the shelves.
Exactly 100 years after its ban, absinthe is experiencing a resurgence in the United States. Thanks to the help of Breaux and Viridian Spirits, many distillers are producing both classic and renegade versions of this vintage spirit. Bartenders are raving about absinthe cocktails. This June, the Wormwood Society will host the first-ever absinthe festival in the country. Basically, absinthe lovers are making up for lost time. You might want to do the same.